Hank Dogs

Half Smile (spinART)

Ah, the minor key. Folkies have been inhabiting its flattened thirds and darkened chords for generations, culling pathos from its ample stock of yearning, erecting careers in its shadowy glens. Without the minor key, Bob Dylan would still be a Zimmerman, Leonard Cohen would just be a poet, and Joni Mitchell would have never gotten Blue.

However fond American folk singers are of the ol' sad strum, though, none can match the melancholophilia of the Brits. From Nick Drake to Sandy Denny to Bert Jansch, the minor key reigns supreme in the U.K. And from the way the Hank Dogs sit frowning on the cover of Half Smile, you know the London trio carries that tragic torch proudly.

Describing itself as a dysfunctional family, the threesome consists of exes Andy Allen and Joanna "Piano" Price, along with Allen's daughter from a previous marriage, Lily Ramona. If this configuration sounds like a setup for a beautiful disaster, that's exactly what the Hank Dogs provide. The band's sophomore release is full of pensive, dark-edged folk that evokes the richly harmonized sound of early Indigo Girls or Jonatha Brooke's first group, the Story. Set against a backdrop of finger-picked acoustic guitars, mandolin, and piano, the songs brood on such cheery topics as ghostly visitations ("Little Door," "Singers") and dead relationships ("Half Smile," "Women Who").

Unlike many of their heartbroken folk peers, though, the Hank Dogs inject a nimbleness into their music that makes Half Smile strangely uplifting -- even at its most dour. The contemplative sound crackles with an undeniable electricity, which is especially audible in the handful of uptempo songs such as "Same New" and "Let Alone Me."

Half Smile also gets a lift from superlative recording. The smorgasbord of talented engineers used on the project captures the deep, warm tones of the steel-string guitar, helping to transport listeners into a surround-sound realm where chords breathe and plucked notes linger.

The sublime mix and transformational bent to the lyrics imbue the Hank Dogs' songs with an otherworldly shine. Thankfully, though, the band works to keep things grounded, as witnessed in the penultimate track, "Hollywood." Sung by Allen, the tongue-in-cheek tale relates the story of a folk singer who loses his songwriting girlfriend when she leaves England for Los Angeles. Predictably, the woman scores a Top 10 record and instant fame, while the abandoned boyfriend languishes in East Dulwich obscurity. But the Hank Dogs convert the sad moment into one of wry triumph, suggesting that the man got the better end of the deal. The shadows, the band so eloquently proposes, are where the best things bloom.

 
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